Knowledge Problems

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kabbalism and Rationalism: A Point of Agreement

So, in the end, what have the Jewish theologians told us about the knowability of God? On the kabbalistic account, God is represented by an unknowable component (En Sof) and a knowable component (Sefirot). On the rationalistic account, God is represented by an unknowable component (Essence and Attributes) and a knowable component (Actions). We therefore seem to have a point of agreement between the kabbalistic and rationalistic theological systems; in particular, both concede that God must be partially knowable and partially unknowable.

This agreement is, in itself, not very surprising. In the first place, both the kabbalistic and rationalistic systems are ultimately outgrowths of the Jewish religion, and therefore both require in the end that God remain somehow knowable to human beings. Were God to be completely and utterly cut off from human experience, nothing in the Jewish religion would make any sense, and, for the most part, Jewish thinkers are not willing or able to go this far. "Far from being able to serve as the basis for religion, the Absolute One renders religion meaningless" (berkovits_04).

This point of agreement between kabbalistic theology and rational theology is also unsurprising for the following simple reason: Rambam casts a large shadow. While the concept of En Sof may predate Rambam (although Kaufmann Kohler and Isaac Broydé, writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia, attribute the term to Azriel of Girona, who was Rambam's junior by a generation) and in any case owe more to Neoplatonic than Aristotelian ideologies, it seems unlikely that kabbalists thinking and writing about En Sof in any succeeding generation could have overlooked the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is Rambam's denuded conception of God-as-He-is-in-Himself. What was left for the kabbalists after Rambam had completed his work was merely to pile poetical grandiosities upon the concept. From the kabbalistic standpoint, En Sof could certainly not be permitted to be less unknowable than Rambam's God, and since it is logically impossible for anything to be more unknowable than Rambam's God, the kabbalistic conception of the Unknowable was essentially forced into rough equality with that of Rambam. At least it seems so to me.

Still, it is beyond certain that both schools would reject a conclusion such as that "God is composed of two parts, one knowable and one unknowable." It is almost as certain that both schools would reject a more cleverly-worded conclusion such as that "God is composed of two aspects, one knowable and one unknowable." Cordovero writes, for example,

In the beginning Ein Sof emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. Division and change do not apply to it, only to the external sefirot (matt_90).

There are hundreds of other testimonials to the absolute unity of God and to His imperviousness to division into "aspects," much less "parts". That being said, if it is to be admitted that God is somehow knowable and somehow unknowable (which is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from both the rational and kabbalistic treatises), and if we are not to play games of equivocation with our own mundane terminology, such as by permitting "knowable" and "unknowable" both to inhere in the same subject without contradiction, then we are forced to accept one of the previous statements or a close cognate, however distasteful. Thus, kabbalists and rationalists alike must accept something like the following: "God is composed of two aspects or parts, one knowable and one unknowable."

One can choose to reject such a statement outright, but only at the risk of completely collapsing the distinction between "knowable" and "unknowable". If one rejects the above statement and all its cognates, it is no longer meaningful to talk about "En Sof vs. Sefirot" or about "Essence vs. Actions". There can be no meaningful distinctions to be had, and it is all holy nonsense. Certainly, one can debate what precise meaning we should attach to the notion of "part" or "aspect" in this context, and we will try to be more formal about this below, but if we desire that there be a distinction between knowable and unknowable, and we still wish to respect the law of contradiction, then it must be the case that there are in some sense multiple parts or aspects of God. So it is.

In any case, despite their point of agreement, neither the kabbalistic nor rationalistic system provides us with an explicit formal definition of "knowability," nor does either provide an explicit "knowledge-theoretic" explanation of the relation between the knowable and unknowable components/aspects of God. It is these two omissions that I will make a primitive attempt to address in the following section.


  • I figued this out a while back. Both have to ultimately say that God is completely unknowable. But as you point out, both also have to agree that we can know something, or else it's all pointless. However where I differ from you (I think maybe) is that I don't see the knowability and the unknowability as two aspects or parts of God. I see God as being completely Unknowable, but He 'chooses' to emanate/act in this world things that we can understand. Assuming He exists.

    By Blogger XGH, at May 18, 2007, 10:22:00 AM  

  • Assuming He exists.

    Well, yes, that is my working assumption in this series of posts, although not necessarily my working assumption in life. Maybe. But I think we're thinking the same thing, even if you phrase it as a matter of God's "choosing" to emanate of whatever. If one thinks of God (and for that matter, if one thinks of everything) as a "system" — which is the broadest way, I think, to conceive of phenomena in general — then we simply are (both) saying that the God-system, with boundaries reasonably drawn, is partly knowable and partly unknowable. We cannot move God's "choices" or "actions" outside the boundary of the system, becuase this would imply (logically) zero connection between those actions and God, and thus we might as well attribute these actions to Boris the cat two doors down. They would have nothing to do with God.

    This is actually where this entire series of posts is leading, so I don't want to spoil everything by saying anything more here. (Not because I have anything remarkably profound to say, but because I've spent so much time on it, I want it to unfold in the right way, with proper formality and rigor, or at least whatever rigor I am capable of giving it.) Thanks for the comment, though! I am honored.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 18, 2007, 11:17:00 AM  

  • Salomon Maimon proposed in the 18th century that the Ein Sof and Rambam's transcendent God were one and the same. For his pains, he became the subject of a herem. I think part of the issue here is that both the Rambam and the kabbalists were confounding the establishment of the "truth" of Judaism, or a particular Jewish Revelation, with the broader, general question of the nature of God. Roman Catholicism seems to have progressed down the path established by Thomas Aquinas, who we all know was deeply influenced by Moreh Nevuchim.
    Greek philosophy imposed the question: do we know what God is, creating the dichotomy of an abstraction that must be real. Islam and Christianity wrestled with the same question, but Jews who were the minority religion in both contexts needed to defend Judaism as the authentic revelation. Rejecting tradition as the proof of God's existence compounded the problem for the philosophers, and we can speculate prompted others to create a tradition (let's avoid specifics for the moment on that point lest the K word rear its head). I think that's why we find such vituperative polemics by the Rambam against Christianity. Where my argument does fall down, however, is Rambam's position on Islam, which was generally positive, even though he was forced into exile by the Almohads. It's possible that the stable political status provided by Muslim states - Jews and Christians considered dhimmis - that there was less pressure to defend Judaism. Christianity, on the other hand, saw Jews as those who had rejected Jesus' salvation that they tolerated to illustrate the fate of non-believers.
    The common schema of two aspects seem to me founded on the need to respond to the intellectual challenge to religion in general , and Judaism in particular.

    By Blogger Steve, at May 21, 2007, 2:45:00 PM  

  • Thanks Steve. It's an interesting question what forced religious thinkers (or Jewish thinkers) to begin doing philosophy. It's not like the Greeks were massing at the borders or something. The historians will always find some social movements behind things, but in certain cases it may just be individuals looking for the deeper truth. What moved Avicenna or Averroes? I'm sure the Cambridge Companion has a nice answer, but I'm too lazy to look. On the Jewish side, it seems there was an aspect of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses in order not to lose adherents, but I think that people like Rambam or Ralbag were mostly just interested in getting to the truth. What they wrote on the topic was not for popular consumption. That's what I like to think, anyway. Thanks for commenting!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 21, 2007, 3:23:00 PM  

  • If I understand you correctly, your argument is that historical context is secondary to an individual's position in the evolution of philosophy. I can't speak to the motivations of Avicenna or Averroes, but is an appealing thought that they were simply motivated by the search for truth.
    In the case of Ralbag, whose intellect and personality would have been remarkable in any age, I'd say it's easy to make the case that he was motivated solely by his personal need to understand the functioning of the cosmos.
    He was also standing of the shoulders of the Rambam (who was in turn standing on the shoulders of Saadia Gaon).
    From my perspective, it's important to be cognizant that Aristotlean reason left a lacuna where Revelation lay for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Being silent on the nature of Revelation allowed all three religions to develop apologies for their particular Revelation within the context of Reason, but also created something of an intellectual arms race to claim that one particular Revelation was more compatible with Reason. The fact that the Jews lacked political sovereignity was held to be an indication that their Revelation - although obviously closely related to and predating other revelations - had been superceded. Rambam, as well as Ramban and the kabbalists seem to me to be operating in part on the defensive. As you point, The Guide to The Perplexed was not for mass consumption - The Mishneh Torah was. But the Rambam wrote the Guide in Arabic, meaning that it would also be read by Muslims. If you view the Rambam as man of intellectual integrity (as I do), I would imagine he would most interested in the quality of faith of his coreligionists, but also as someone who adhered to his faith on the basis of rational thought not emotional attachment or blind tradition.

    By Blogger Steve, at May 27, 2007, 9:00:00 PM  

  • Agreed.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 28, 2007, 9:25:00 AM  

  • >and we still wish to respect the law of contradiction

    Do you really think that Kabbalists respect this at the level of Ein Sof???

    They most certainly do not. the law of contradiction can only exist at the realm of particulars which in turn can only exist as an emanation of ein sof. Thus when discussing the relationship between ein sof and the sephirot, the law of contradiction does not apply as far as [most] kabbalists are concerned.

    By Blogger chardal, at Jun 14, 2007, 7:46:00 PM  

  • Hmmmmm.....

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 30, 2007, 9:19:00 PM  

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